Supplements.
Supplements.
Image: 123rf.com/Perfect Lab

Recently, when chatting to someone I’d just met, the topic of exercise came up. The person said that they would love to exercise but that they’re out of shape. When assured that the point of exercise was to try get into shape, their next question was: “What should I take?”

They’d have been better served asking: “What should I not eat?” or, “How would you suggest I start walking and running?” or “Should or should I not join a gym?”

There’s nothing abnormal about this person. He is a victim of a pill-popping society. Have an ache? Take this. Feel tired? Take that. Want to lose fat? Take this. One can only imagine what it must be like in the US.

This does not mean he should not take supplements. Once his diet is in check and he is exercising, perhaps there is a supplement that would be right for him. If he wanted to take one, his doctor would surely advise him on options, or if he asks someone like yours truly for advice, he would be told to do his research and then decide for himself.

There’s a huge market for supplements. A walk through the supplement section of one of the large pharmacies is like a trip through a foreign country: so much to see but you understand none of it.

There are supplements for energy, supplements for hair, nails and skin, pills to help your immune system, tablets to improve sexual function, powders to build muscles and liquids to shed fat. There are supplements that are said to help treat conditions, others are said to prevent conditions, and some are said to boost performance. Some are just so amazing they make you live to 100 years old and play golf like Gary Player.

It can be overwhelming. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has estimated that there are about 30,000 supplements available and that 1,000 new ones are introduced every year.

Drugs, on the other hand, must go through rigorous testing and approvals before they can be sold to the public. At the risk of sounding like big pharma pays me (I wish they did), that’s why they work. There are pharmaceutical answers to almost every condition imaginable, while there are also pharmaceuticals used illicitly in the sporting world, whose side effects include athletic performance. Think Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones.

The pharmaceuticals that some sportspeople take feature on the World Anti-Doping Association’s banned substances list. Apple cider vinegar and whey protein do not. Think about that.

But then, most people don’t want to take substances that could hurt them, or lead to heart, liver, kidney and prostate damage, in addition to possible psychological issues, just to run one-tenth of a second faster.

Most people want to take vitamins, collagen, and fish oils to look after their bodies. They want to take powders to supplement their protein intake to support repairing muscles and sip on apple cider vinegar with the hope that it does, somewhat — even if minuscule — aid in fat loss. But what do we really know?

Supplements
Supplements
Image: 123rf.com/Gina Sanders

SA has raised the bar about what can and can’t be sold on shelves in this country — and I’d bet my last rand that not one of the respected stockists of supplements in SA would stock anything they know to be dangerous, mislabelled or making false claims. And if one were found, it would be removed immediately. That’s comforting, but the question we’re going to ask — and it is nearly impossible to answer — is: do they do their job as promised or are they a waste of money?

Or put another way, if we assume that you are not buying a supplement on the black market and what you spend your money on has gone through checks and balances, how do you know which products really work, if by the very nature of being complementary or dietary supplements, they don’t go through the rigours of clinical trials like, say, Panado?

Don’t be wooed by the marketing. Terms such as “all-natural, anti-ageing, clinically proven, antioxidant rich, sexual vitality” sound great, but interrogate them. Try find a definitive, peer-reviewed outcome on just about any supplement and it would likely be inconclusive at best, or suggest “some” possible positive effects, along with “some” possible side effects.

Just because a little of something is good for you, don’t assume a lot of something is still good for you. Don’t just listen to people. Understand that influencers are most-often paid to promote products — either in money or with products.

Harvard Health recently published an article that the authors say provides some clarity by way of a scorecard, which types of supplements are worth spending money on. They conclude: “It's a disappointing scorecard. Most people stand to benefit from vitamin D, many from fibre, and some from fish oil. And sorry to say, popular supplements used to treat medical problems fare no better.”

It’s the nature of industry: supplements such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, probiotics, prebiotics, amino acids and others, won’t get the type of attention and large-scale, peer reviewed studies that pharmaceuticals will attract. It’s disappointing, but it may not be a deal-breaker. Supplements are meant to supplement, not cure, and people must understand that.

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